Writing a Memoir – Tuesday Writing Tips with Beijing Tai Tai author

Today, Tania McCartney has dropped in to share her tips on writing memoirs. Tania’s book, Beijing Tai Tai has just been released and will be launched at the National Library of Australia in Canberra tomorrow.

Tania generously shares her writing journey with Beijing Tai Tai, and the things she learnt along the way.

1.            Your Beijing Tai Tai is an hilarious true account of 4 years you spent living in Beijing and I found it totally engrossing from first page to last. Can you give us some tips on how to write a memoir that doesn’t bore the reader?

Open yourself and put it out there! I think authenticity is vital when you write memoir, and in Beijing Tai Tai, I didn’t hold back – on both the pleasant and not-so-pleasant. In fact, I would have liked to include more on the not-so-pleasants but I couldn’t go too far, as my husband was working for a government agency and China was (and still is) a little sensitive on certain topics.

Nevertheless, I did pretty much ‘spill’ on several topics, and I also wasn’t afraid to talk about the everyday ‘little things’ that are surprisingly interesting to readers because everyone can relate to them.

I think humour and visually evocative writing helps engage readers, too. Not only are they two of my favourite writing styles, they also allow the reader to see, feel and more closely experience the story.

2.            When did you decide you would write this book? Did you write Beijing Tai Tai as you went or did you make notes and then put the whole thing together later?

Beijing Tai Tai was actually thrown together just months before we left our post and returned to Australia. It was a mishmash of blog entries, magazine columns (I was an editor and columnist for several English language expat magazines) and my own journal entries, plus new material I wrote expressly for the book, to give it a better sense of flow.

The day-to-day occurrences we experienced in China were often so striking, so shocking, so breathtaking and so frustrating, I had no choice but to write them down. It wasn’t until shortly before leaving Beijing that I realised I had the bones of a book, and so threw things together, printed 1,000 copies, held a launch and sold 500 copies in a matter of weeks. It was phenomenal. Every expat I met (no matter which country they hailed from) hungrily devoured the book, and bought copies for friends and relatives.

What I never expected was to come home and have the same reaction.

I quickly sold the other 500 upon my return to Australia – and I guess, in hindsight, this is no surprise. Australians are phenomenally well-travelled people with an inherent fascination for culture. Being that the Beijing Olympics had just stretched China open and crammed the eyeballs of the world in there, China was a really hot topic when I returned, and – to my complete surprise at the time – Australians adored immersing themselves in a world pretty much reserved for expats.

When Exisle Publishing said they wanted to create a trade paperback out of Beijing Tai Tai, I was ecstatic. Like me, they knew the book would appeal to so many Australians – and indeed, women around the world. I knew, however, that I would basically need to rewrite the book. I needed to take it away from its intended expat audience and make it more ‘accessible’ for readers, so I totally rejigged the book, subtracted a lot, added even more, and wrote some fresh material. With the aide of my amazing editor – Anouska Jones – I sorted the independent entries so they achieved a more chronological feel, and also added a glossary. The result is a book anyone, from any walk of life, can relate to and enjoy.

3.            How hard was it to write about the really personal things? Can you give us some tips on how you found the balance between being true to the book and giving away personal information that you didn’t choose to, or that might offend people you didn’t want to upset?

Oh this was hard! There was SO much I wanted to say but I was really bound by my husband’s ‘political’ role in China. I did add a little more for the reborn Beijing Tai Tai, but I would have liked to add a lot more on the challenges I experienced with local expats – who often rivaled the might of China itself when it came to keeping my sanity.

I was really aware that if I spoke of certain challenging situations with other expats, it might open a few cans of worms – and frankly, I’m too old and world weary to bother with the creation of such personal drama. Let’s just say there were several women who had nothing better to do but lunch and cause trouble and angst for others. Living in an expat community brings out the crazy in some people (which is why we lived as much a ‘local’ life as we possibly could). Reliving this in the book wasn’t so much about the avoidance of hurting feelings but moreover the fact that these people simply weren’t worthy of a role in my story.

When writing a memoir, I would suggest culling entries that don’t appeal to anyone other than your own ego. It’s boring for readers to follow convoluted or deeply personal entries that are centered in a lifetime of hurt or past occurrences that have little to do with the topic en pointe.

I would also suggest carefully culling entries that are vindictive in nature. There’s not much more distasteful than a writer who uses a book as a political platform based purely on personal ego or as a way to get back at people. Beijing Tai Tai wasn’t written for any other reason than sharing the incredible world I lived in. It’s simply the funny and often eye-watering ramblings of a mum raising two kids in Beijing, and attempting to rediscover her path. It’s not Proust but neither is it fairy floss – it’s unabashed openness, and I think that’s why women respond so well to it.

4.            When you’re putting a book like this together, how do you decide what might be interesting to the reader?

To be honest, I knew it would all be interesting! The entries are just so ‘out there’ and so polar opposite to what we experience here in Australia. I really wanted to include entries that straddled the scale – from light and funny to appalling and deeply moving – I wanted it to be rollercoaster not slow-build. I wanted the reader to feel as ‘pulled’ as I so consistently was, in so many directions. One minute it’s the squealing high of silk markets, the next it’s the heart-melting woe of Beijing orphanages.

I honestly left most original entries intact, but I did pull a few entries I felt would alienate or bore those who haven’t lived in China – the more localised and expat-exclusive entries.

I toyed with pulling the entries on how I rediscovered my writing because I felt these were a little self-indulgent, but I decided to leave them in because if it wasn’t for China, I wouldn’t be a full time author now. It may seem to some that having a maid and endless spare hours might be responsible for my being able to achieve full time authorship . . . but that’s not true. I achieved this because the experience of China stretched me and made me more courageous than I ever dreamed. It gave me the guts to pursue full time writing, something I’ve been able to hold onto since returning to Australia. For that reason, China was an incredible life gift.

5.            I think writing a memoir is so brave. You have no control over how readers will interpret your work, yet a memoir is an intensely personal thing so they are not only interpreting your book, but making judgments about you as a person. How do you separate the book from the person?

I must admit, I have been feeling nervous about how people will receive the book – not so much in regard to revealing my life or innermost workings, but rather in terms of how I will be personally judged. There is a lot of opinion in this book but I really make no apology for it. Whether right or wrong, shallow or deep, insightful or biased, it’s how I felt at the time. It’s no holds barred and some may not like it but I have to be okay with that – such is the richness and variety of life and living and opinion. Some people will ‘get’ my book, others may not – and I can’t take that personally. If someone wants to sum me up based on the content of one book, then they’re not someone whose opinion would matter to me . . . and probably not to anyone else, either.

6.            Not everyone will get your humour and you don’t get a chance to explain what you really meant – so some of what you write can be misinterpreted. Do you have any tips on how to cope with unwanted feedback?

In regard to this, I’m going to wing it! I honestly believe that if someone doesn’t ‘get’ my words or humour, then that’s ok. Their reaction doesn’t define me. I have to keep my heart and head separate on this, as I honestly believe that no amount of ‘explaining’ will be enough for some people. Their opinion will be their opinion, and with some people, there’s little you can do to change it. And frankly – that’s ok.

7.            When you’re writing about living in a country so different from where you come from, how do you make it ‘real’ and relatable for Australian readers?

I really feel that the attraction in Beijing Tai Tai’s content is the very fact that it’s so different from Australia. Australians are just so open to, and interested in, other countries and their cultures. It also helps to write with honesty and make it as descriptive and emotional as possible. And all of my time in China was descriptive and emotional!

8.            Any big trips, future memoirs planned?

We’ve been in Canberra just over three years now and I’ve been itching to live overseas again for – oh, around three years now. I’d go back to Beijing in a heartbeat. Because we can’t do that, and are likely to live in Canberra for some time yet, we’ve booked some extended travel to Europe and Thailand in December and January. I’m quite breathless about it. As for memoirs, I’m not so sure . . . I’ll see how putting myself out there in Beijing Tai Tai goes first!

Thanks, Tania for sharing these tips with us and wishing you every success with your beautiful new book and your future travels.

For more on Beijing Tai Tai and to see photos and a video of Tania talking about the inspiration behind the book, head to www.beijingtaitai.com

If you have specific questions for Tania about her book please feel free to leave them in the comments section of this post…or pop along to her book launch tomorrow and you can ask her in person.

Happy writing:)



Recently, I had a question from Diane on this blog about how to turn a memoir into a work of fiction. Diane asked:

Kindly advise what steps I can take to turn my memoir into a work of fiction.

Turning something biographical into a novel is something I have been pondering for a while.

Several years ago I promised a dearly loved terminally ill friend that I would tell her story. Apart from having to allow myself time to grieve, I’ve also been held back by concerns about how a true story might damage my friend’s childrens’ already difficult relationship with their father, and how it might upset them to know what their mother went through.

But her courage was so inspirational and her human spirit so strong that I want to be able to share it with people. I have been thinking carefully about how I can honour her memory and tell her story honestly in a way that won’t cause upset to the people she loved the most.

It’s only recently that I’ve made the decision to write a novel told from the point of view of one of her children, possibly with some excerpts from my friends own diaries where people and places aren’t named.

I think I have worked out how I can tell Sue’s story with love and respect and inspiration. So Diane and anyone else who wants to turn a true story into a work of fiction for whatever reason, these are my tips on how you could do it:

  1. Step away from the true story as much as you can. Try and sift the essential elements of what your story is about from the detail of what really happened.
  2. Write down the main things (action points) that happen in the memoir/biography. Decide what’s important to you – what do you want to keep in your story?
  3. Decide where your story is going to start and where it’s going to end – this could be different from what actually happened in real life.
  4. Do a plot plan for your story with a beginning, a series of events leading to the climax (the high point of your story) and a conclusion tying all the threads together. Plot your story as you would a novel.
  5. Decide which characters to include in the work of fiction. In a memoir there are usually lots of people mentioned because real life is full of encounters, but you can cut some of these out if you are writing fiction. It can get confusing if you have too many characters or too much happening.
  6. Do a character profile for each person you want to include in your story, but make their background and details totally different from real life. Completely change names, places of residence, appearance, number of siblings, number of children, possibly even gender. Do what you can to make them unrecognisable in your story, whilst still being real people. It’s the essence of the people you want to capture in your story, not their detail.
  7. Use these characters to create fictional things in your story and you can blend these with the true events.
  8. Rework your plot outline to include true and fictional incidents you want to use. Perhaps change the order of events from what really happened.
  9. Try and sum up in a paragraph what you want your story to be about. Leave out any incidents/action that is not related.
  10. Get someone who knows you well to read your writing to make sure you have moved away enough from the true story.
  11. Try and feel your story and allow it to take you in new directions. Don’t fight against these changes because they are not what actually happened.
  12. Find the truth in your story in the power and complexity of your characters rather than the detail of actual events.

Diane, I hope you find these tips useful. Good luck with rewriting your memoir and to anyone else attempting the challenge of turning fact into fiction.

If you have any tips of your own on how to turn fact into fiction, I’d love you to leave them in the comments section of this blog for others to share.